The hills of Slunj - march of the desperate
by Irfan Talic Arkan and Emir Bešic
During 1992 and 1993, several thousand Bosnian patriots, having left the comforts of Western Europe, travelled across Croatia to the free territory of the former district of Bihać. According to the available data, 1,237 Bosnians set off from Croatia across the hills of Slunj, with the help of Croatian guides, in order to join the fighters of the AB-H’s 5th Corps. 162 of them perished: the search for their remains still continues today, fourteen years later. This inspired Sedin Mehadžić to make the feature film Slunjska Brda: život ili smrt [The Hills of Slunj: life or death]. A large number of the original participants in the march play themselves in the film, including the two heros of this story: Irfan Talić Arkan and Emir Bešić.
Irfan Talić Arkan
One hundred and twenty of us arrived under orders in mid August 1992 at the Stara Bolnica re-training camp near Jastrebarsko [close to Zagreb], after five months of fighting on the Derventa front. My commander, the late Ramadan Ramo Kresić from Skucani Vakuf, and I were planning to go to Sanski Most. We heard about these Croatian scouts - guides from Rakovica near the Plitvice Lakes - who conducted people to the Bihać area. They were called Jura, Anto and Mlađo. They had already taken two such groups to Cazinska Krajina, first 50 and then 120, without any problem. They worked for money, which was fine by me. No one wants to work for nothing - then as now. They agreed to guide us for a sum that was not too high. We were all battle-hardened, every other one of us had destroyed a [JNA] tank in the [Bosnian] Posavina. The camp had been visited in the meantime by Sefer Halilović, Fikret Abdić, and a man from Tuzla who, I think, was from the B-H territorial defence. They asked us where we were heading and who our guides were, and then asked us to go to Sarajevo. Except for Fikret Abdić, who said we were needed in the Krajina.
Soon after that, another 500 volunteers from the Sajmište [in Zagreb] joined us on the Bihać route. Jura and Anto said that they could not and would not take such a large group through the enemy lines. In the end they agreed, after we had trebled their reward. We then discovered treachery in the camp. The Serbs had seized the families of two men from Bosanski Novi and sent them a message via their contact in Sisak - a Serb married to a Croat - asking them to inform them when and where the group would go. We found them out, forestalled them, and after they had confessed we handed them over to the Croatian police. Instead of leaving on 22 we left on 25 August from Karlovac which we had reached by bus.
We set off at six o’clock in the morning. We had agreed that my unit would guard the rear, in order to prevent desertion or straggling. Leading the column were the Croat scouts: they were obeyed unconditionally, because they knew the way. No one interfered in their work. There was no command or orders: the guides were our mother, father and brother. We were armed: we carried automatic weapons, machine guns, two 60 mm mortars, Zolye, Ose, every third man carried a grenade... The scouts told us to get rid of the heavy stuff, since we might not be able to endure in the heat. We threw away some things and began our journey of no return.
Thirty kilometres later, in the middle of the forest, we fell into a [Serb] ambush. You know what it means to have six hundred men on the march: if they are two metres apart, this means a line more than one kilometre long. It was impossible to hide. A panic ensued, since the enemy was using cluster bombs and some 500 men had no battle experience. Most of them were going back to their homes in the Bihać district to fight, but they also took with them such useful items as vegeta [stock powder], cigarettes, sanitary towels for women - the courtesies, as we called them.
I went with Gigo to the head of the column and saw that our men were not firing, but had simply dropped to the ground while the scouts were answering the fire. We agreed that everyone should start shooting while Gigo and I would attack the ambushers on the flank. We managed to get practically behind the enemy - we killed one and the rest ran away. But our guide Anto, the nurse Sakiba from Jajce, and a lad from Cazin were killed. We buried them.
The first night we added ten men to march ahead with the scouts. We started at 2 am towards the Slunj military range. Pandemonium broke out on the next day: the enemy knew about us! Their helicopters flew over our heads. I hid in a hawthorn bush, while a helicopter hovered above me. It was terribly hot, the temperature was close to 40 degrees Celsius, and we had no water. The people began to weaken. They were searching for water in beech-tree stumps, some drank their urine. I did too. I waited for it to cool, drank it and was sick. This freshened me up and I continued. I even thought of drinking my own blood. Ramo fell down from exhaustion and had to be carried.
What I did next was to pinch a water bottle from the scout Jura’s rucksack, and gave it to Ramo to help him recover. I too had a gulp, and immediately felt regenerated, like new. Jura cursed like mad, threatened blue murder. I admitted I had stolen his water fourteen years’ later, during the making of the film. A man from Cazin killed himself because of the thirst. He took out a gun and shot himself in the head. The troopers were in a terrible state. We came across a swimming pool in the Slunj camp, but there was only dried up earth inside it. I felt like killing myself. You know what it’s like without water: no saliva, weakness, all strength gone, heavy T-shirt. I was carrying two rifles, as well as a sniper gun and an automatic rifle. At one point I cried out to Jura and Anto: ‘Let’s first find and attack one of their villages! We must take their water!’ We were at our wits’ end, we could go no further. More and more soldiers dropped out, collapsing by the road from exhaustion. The night soothed our suffering a little. There were another forty kilometres to go. Jura, however, always answered questions by saying ‘just twenty to go’.
We moved slowly and cautiously. Our last scout had to keep in sight the man at the head of the column. We entered the Croat village of Brajdići near Rakovica, close to the Zagreb-Plitvice road. It was burnt down. I saw an orchard, but also soldiers on the hill. They did not shoot at us, probably out of fear, given our numbers. Jura told us we should keep away from the apples, because they would kill us. I bit into an apple all the same and my tongue stiffened like plaster. I spat it out. I found three blackberries and ate them. There was no life in the village. The roof ridges had collapsed to the ground. I saw a well and could not believe it when I found water in it. The bucket had a hole. I found an empty army-ration gherkin tin, tied a wire to it - and drank like an animal. I could not stop. I must have drunk five or six litres. Having emptied the tin I rolled over on my side and wept convulsively. I could not stop: it was an extraordinary feeling, something between pain and satisfaction. My soul wept within me...
Ambush at Sadilovac
We took a quick count and found that over half of the men were missing. It was decided that a group should go back for the troopers who must have collapsed from exhaustion. It was agreed that they should go as far as the military crossing, and that we would wait for them until two in the morning. That was the group with Emir Bešić, which was later captured. When we set off, we kept close to each other because of the fog. It was impossible to keep track of the numbers. We saw that men were there, and we saw that men were missing, but we had to carry on. This is what had been agreed: that those who arrived would arrive. During the night we had to cross the Rakovačko Polje near Plitvica. We followed the Sadilovac-Bugari road. Sadilovac on the Croatian side and Bugari on the Bosnian side were both agricultural settlements. Between them lies a polje [field, plain] about fifteen kilometres long with the hill of Lipovača in the middle. In a stream, we saw that there were no men behind us. They had got lost in the fog. I went back, whistling in the night and looking for them. It was difficult to approach the people who had fallen behind and who dared not answer back. They did not trust me and I did not trust them. The password that night was ‘knife...gun’. I asked someone: ‘Do you know the knife?’ He replied: ‘Gun.’ I shouted out: ‘Fuck the lot of you! Join hands and follow me.’
That morning, as the dew drenched us, I recalled how the day before we had been dying from thirst. We managed to climb to the top of Lipovača and found old Serb positions there with no one in them. There were around five hundred of us, a nice number. I felt a surge of pride, although I knew that over a hundred of our men had perished. We could see in the far distance the Plješevica mountain with a radar on top - that meant Bihać. I felt immensely happy. I had never visited Bihać before the war, only passing through it at night on the way to the sea. At that moment Bihać appeared to me as the centre of the world. I told Jura: ‘I’ll walk this part of the road on one leg!’
Before crossing the river Korana we were attacked from the direction of Sadilovac. We were in a field. I turned round and looked at the column. It all reminded me of those Partisan films. I said to myself: ‘Look, by golly, it’s Kozara.’ A machine gun sounded from the cow sheds. It mowed in one direction and then in the other. Like hay. I jumped into a hole and took off my sniper rifle. Gigo did the same. It was a distance of seven hundred metres. I saw the machine gunner in my sights: blue shirt, big beard, Serb military hat. Doodling. In front of him only a row of bricks to shield him. Gigo and I fired simultaneously and the machine gun fell silent. The butt of my sniper rifle wounded me in the eye. We had only a dozen wounded.
We waded into the freezing Korana and finally crossed into Bosnia. At the far end of a hornbeam thicket there was one of our own [B-H army] soldiers sleeping on a parapet, wearing a uniform made from a tent flap. I thought: ‘Look at that poverty, while we’re in American uniforms.’ We started the count in the field: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ... The last number was 485.
I was captured along with the group that had gone back for the men who had fallen behind. We were taken by reservists from Paški, police from Rakovica and the regular Serb army. Apart from me there was Jasmin, Ibro, Samir, Smajo, Fisnija... eleven of us in total. They killed Arif Mehić immediately, in front of us. ‘That’s the one: that’s the one!’, they shouted. They took him two metres forward, cut him in half with a volley, then finished him off with a bullet in the forehead. Twenty-eight people were killed there in a short time: they were killed while surrendering. The eleven of us were taken to the Slunj military range. They stripped us down to our underpants and took us for questioning, one by one. The questioning was accompanied by beatings. Suad Čaušević succumbed to the blows. A Croat called Horvat had his throat cut in front of us. On the following day Hamzija Murić from Cazin and I loaded 24 bodies of our men onto a ‘Pitzgauer’ [army truck], heaping them one on top of another.
Twenty days later they separated off a score of us, saying they were taking us to be exchanged. We were transported by helicopter to Knin. We became slave labourers. I was taken from the Knin castle to the mountain of Š tikovo-Svilaj, twenty-eight kilometres from Knin, or eight kilometres from Drniš. The Svilaj mountain range extends towards Maslenica. Every day we did what they told us to do. We looted Croatian houses, constructed dugouts. Smajo Jakupović, who survived, was with me, as well as Mumin Mujić, Ibro Jusić and Husnija Dizdarević. One day I told Smajo: ‘Smajo, I beg you, let’s run away.!’ I weighed just fifty-four kilos, all my teeth had been knocked out. Smajo said: ‘Emir, I can’t; you try...’ I ran away on the day a Serb soldier, Aleksa from Paški, shot a prisoner dead. The exhausted man had fallen down with the stone he was carrying. Aleksa went to him, shouting: ‘Get up, you mother-fucker!’ - and shot him in the head. I took the opportunity of the great consternation that ensued ... I fled towards the Š ibenik-Zadar road, then towards Drniš, all the time across the mountain range, looking at the sea in the distance. I crossed the Drniš polje, passed the Ivan Meštrović mausoleum, swam across the Čikola, passed through Čavoglave, came out onto the Š ibenik-Zadar road - and bumped into the Kenyan battalion of UNPROFOR. They tied me to their radiator, despite my awful state. I was an animal desperately fighting for survival.
After questioning me about who I was, I was handed over to a Swiss woman called Margaret and a Frenchman called Adam from the UN. Margaret helped me a lot, and I wish to thank her wherever she is now. To my horror the Kenyans took me on the following day back to Knin, to the Southern [UNPROFOR] Camp, in order to verify what I had been saying. I spent the night there with the French UNPROFOR. When I took them to the work area from which I had fled, we found it deserted. The prisoners had been promptly transferred to Banja Luka and to Batković near Bijeljina. My friend Smajo Jakupović from Stijena near Cazin was sent to the Aleksinac mine in Serbia. Smajo spent exactly two and a half years working in that mine. He survived. He collapsed during the showing of the film The Hills of Slunj - life or death and had to be taken out. I showed UNPROFOR our names carved in the stone and they believed me.
I was allowed a choice of three countries where I could start a new life. I returned home to Bosanska Otoka, where before the war I had worked as a fireman. My wife remarried and abandoned our three-year old son Amel. I too remarried. Amel is now a secondary-school pupil - he acted with me in the film. There is also Arnela, in the fifth year of her secondary school, and four-year-old Adis.
Translated from Start (Sarajevo), 5 September 2006